The Gulag Archipelago in three volumes
The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn's masterwork, a vast canvas of camps, prisons, transit centres and secret police, of informers and spies and interrogators and also of heroism, a Stalinist anti-world at the heart of the Soviet Union where the key to survival lay not in hope but in despair. The work is based on the testimony of some two hundred survivors, and on the recollection of Solzhenitsyn's own eleven years in labour camps and exile. It is both a thoroughly researched document and a feat of literary and imaginative power.
The three-volume book is a narrative relying on eyewitness testimony and primary research material, as well as the author's own experiences as a prisoner in a gulag labor camp. Written between 1958 and 1968, it was published in the West in 1973, thereafter circulating in samizdat (underground publication) form in the Soviet Union until its official publication in 1989.
Structurally, the text is made up of seven sections divided (in most printed editions) into three volumes: parts 1–2, parts 3–4, and parts 5–7. At one level, the Gulag Archipelago traces the history of the system of forced labour camps that existed in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1956, starting with V.I. Lenin's original decrees shortly after the October Revolution establishing the legal and practical framework for a series of camps where political prisoners and ordinary criminals would be sentenced to forced labour. It describes and discusses the waves of purges, assembling the show trials in context of the development of the greater Gulag system with particular attention to the legal and bureaucratic development.
The legal and historical narrative ends in 1956, the time of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956 denouncing Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era.
Subject: Life Changing expose
Marxism had a grip on the academic communities of all the major universities.
Reading Gulag was a long, long process and the going was tedious but the author was able to give a first hand account of real life experiences and true descriptions of the totalitarian and merciless behaviour of the proletarian dictators.
Once and for all my mind was able to resist the drip, drip, drip of the propaganda.
No fool, the author describes in excruciating detail a vast spectrum of man's inhumanity to man from prolonged personal experience and recognition of the truth in the the testimony of others.
While debunking the plausibility of the mystical ideal New Man touted in the most committed ideological evangelists of Marxism he exposes the old truth in a new way - man cannot perfect mankind as there is a flaw in the fabric of our being. He does not despair as he draws hope from his acceptance of the good news of salvation bringing the necessary power from outside ourselves making it possible to live differently.
It is worth noting that as soon as he was exiled to the west he unhesitatingly applied the same insight to the secular culture of the West and quickly lost his status as being a champion of us against them.
Subject: A book about life under a total ideology
"Marxism had a grip on the academic communities of all the major universities, once and for all I was able to resist the drip, drip, drip of the propaganda" in particular is exactly the kind of thing a Soviet ideologue would have said, although they would not have said Marxism but imperialism or liberalism or something.
One of Solzhenitsyn's themes in this book is not that Marxism had some unique poison in it or that the Soviet Union was a shocking stain on the otherwise spotless behaviour of the human race, but that it all HAD to turn out like that in a state with a perfect ideology, an answer to everything with no holes in it.
p. 173-174 of I-II: "Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble―and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
"Ideology―that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. [...]
"Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.
"There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the Petrograd Cheka, headed by Uritsky, and the Odessa Cheka, headed by Deich, did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many there were. But I wouldn't set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn't their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and thereby assist our march into the future? Wasn't it expedient?
"That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear."
And reader, if you think I am lying or distorting this, and that the book is really a broadside against Marxism and only Marxism, why don't you open the book, turn to page 174, and read the part that I replaced by an ellipsis up there?
Well, enough inter-review banter. To summarize the whole seven books of the Gulag Archipelago in a single sentence, I would say that it is a book about men under a total ideology, crushed under it, or crushing other men under it, or just standing at its side and watching, and what it is like, and what it does to you.
(I say "men" intentionally. Solzhenitsyn's detailed portraits of people's inner life are all men as far as I can remember. Women appear in lots of anecdotes but you do not get a very deep picture. If you want to know about women's mental and moral life under a total ideology, you should probably look at a different book.)
Also it is very much a book about religious feeling in the darkness and the way that people need it, although not ever in the sense of religion as an ideology. This is a buried thread in I-II and III-IV and a revealed one in V-VII. For example the throwaway line from p. 435 of V-VII, the story of a friend of his who turned out to be a deserter who had gotten a regiment killed because he had failed to deliver an order to retreat, where Solzhenitsyn says that "the innermost core of our being is religion and not Party ideology."
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